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A Quick Question

Who are mainline pastors talking to 
about homosexuality?

The quick answer - They are talking less to their congregations and more to the national denominational debate

The longer answer - Since they first addressed homosexuality in the early 1970s, mainline Protestant churches have been thinking, talking, and quite often arguing about the subject. These debates have increased in intensity over the past decade as they have been broadcast on the front pages of newspapers across the country: "Protestants Face Schism on Homosexuality," "Issues of Sexuality Split the Presbyterians Again," "At Gay Wedding, Methodists Vow to Take a Stand Against Church Ban." The church court trials of Episcopal Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining a gay man and United Methodist minister Jimmy Creech for marrying a lesbian couple have attracted substantial national attention, as have contentious national denominational meetings at which votes on gay ordination and gay marriage are tallied.

In our research we have explored the many sides of mainline Protestantism’s debates about homosexuality through the lens of clergy’s statements about the issue in early 2000. When we interviewed 62 mainline Protestant clergy across the United States, 40 volunteered their views on the issue of homosexuality without being prompted. This fact illustrates the intense focus that is being placed on this issue today within mainline Protestant circles.

Some highlights of our findings:

  • Virtually none of the clergy interviewed took hard and fast stands on the issue of homosexuality.
  • Most approach the issue in a pragmatic, rather than prophetic, way. Concerns about denominational splits dominate, and relatively few clergy approach the issue through the lens of justice.
  • Pastors who choose to speak on homosexuality tend to frame the issue in terms of the diffuse notion of "homosexuality," rather than talking about gays and lesbians as people.
  • The majority of clergy who discussed homosexuality focused on the issue in their churches instead of society at large, and in their denominations rather than their individual congregations.

Denominational Debate may breed more Denominational Debate.

This denominational-level focus and pragmatic focus on conflict suggests that denominational debate may be breeding more denominational debate, rather than additional denominational debate being sparked primarily by action in congregations.

The ministers’ focus on the denominational level also raises questions about the exact nature of the relationship between local (congregational) and national (denominational) debate. The clergy who spoke about homosexuality with reference to their congregations were supportive of efforts to make the church more welcoming to gays and lesbians. The evident silence of more socially conservative clergy about how the homosexuality issue affects their congregations may mean that they support the denominational status quo.

In short, the debate about homosexuality in and among local churches is perhaps a bit more muted than national debates about the subject. This might suggest the issue is becoming more oriented around the denominational conflict itself rather than around concerns in individual congregations.


Laura R. Olson 
Department of Political Science 
Clemson University
Clemson, SC 29634-1354
864-656-1457, laurao@clemson.edu

Wendy Cadge
Department of Sociology
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08544
609-258-4531, gacadge@princeton.edu


We rely on data collected from in-depth telephone interviews conducted between January and May 2000 with 62 mainline clergy across the United States. All of these pastors are ordained, and all but three were serving congregations at the time of the interview. On average they had been in the ministry for just over twenty years and had been serving their congregations for just over seven years. The interviews ranged in duration from fifteen minutes to over an hour.

While the interviews were not explicitly designed to assess the clergy’s views on homosexuality, 40 of the ministers spoke voluntarily about various homosexuality-related debates occurring in their congregations, denominations, and the broader society. Their comments came in reaction to three questions in particular:

  • "What is the biggest problem facing your denomination today?"
  • "Is it important for your denomination to stake out clear positions on social and political issues?"
  • "What issue or set of political issues concerns you most in this day and age?"

Half of the clergy interviewed were chosen on the basis of a national random sample of church ZIP codes, and half were specifically identified by their denominations as clergy who are interested in politics. The presence of so many clergy who are politically aware in the sample is valuable because it allows us to assess the attitudes of clergy who are more likely than others to become involved in public debates over homosexuality. Exactly half of each of these two sub-samples of clergy mentioned homosexuality.

These clergy, who represent 35 different states plus the District of Columbia, serve in the American Baptist Churches; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); the United Methodist Church; and the United Church of Christ. Clergy from all six denominations spoke on homosexuality; we find a vague suggestion that Baptist and Methodist ministers were slightly more likely to mention the issue.


Cadge, Wendy. Forthcoming. "Vital Conflicts: The Mainline Denominations Debate Homosexuality." In The Quiet Hand of God:  Faith Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism, ed. Robert Wuthnow and John H. Evans. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Swidler, Arlene. 1993. Homosexuality and World Religions. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Further information about homosexuality and religion can be found at our web site’s section on homosexuality. Additional research findings about homosexuality and religion can be found at a summary of this information from the Organizing Religious Work project.


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